A federal appeals court panel has rejected ex-Rep. Rick Renzi’s request for a third hearing in his corruption case, affirming an opinion that House lawyers argue “alters the fabric of our constitutional structure.”
At issue is the “speech or debate clause,” a provision that provides criminal immunity for legislative work. The Arizona Republican and other House members have asserted the privilege in corruption probes, and the courts have had to weigh in on whether the Justice Department is overstepping its bounds. The House Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group filed an amicus brief in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit asserting the October ruling upholding Renzi’s 2013 convictions — on 17 charges including conspiracy, wire fraud, extortion, racketeering and money laundering — threatened the “speech or debate” clause. As they did in an earlier amicus to the appeals court, the House legal team argued that testimony from Renzi’s former district director on his interest and enthusiasm for proposed bills involved protected legislative conduct.
“If permitted to stand, the ruling that legislative activities that concern drafted-but-not-introduced bills are constitutionally unprotected, in particular, creates a significant risk of chilling Congress’ oversight and investigative functions, and altering the balance of constitutional power between the legislative and executive branches,” the 25-page brief states.
In an order filed Dec. 1, the court announced the three-judge panel voted to deny the former congressman’s petitions for a rehearing. Renzi has been sentenced to three years in prison for charges stemming from his time in office, including a federal land swap scheme. He was first indicted in 2009 and has spent the intervening years waging a legal battle to get charges dropped.
Renzi previously tried to take his case to the Supreme Court, asking the justices to weigh in on how the constitutional provision applies to executive branch investigations of members of Congress. His petition was denied in January 2012.
Former Rep. William J. Jefferson asked the high court to review his corruption conviction in another case that challenged the bounds of the “speech or debate” clause. The Louisiana Democrat’s team had won a 2007 legal challenge in the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, when the court held that the FBI violated the clause by executing a search warrant on his Rayburn office as part of an investigation into his scheme to bribe African officials. The Supreme Court declined to hear the Justice Department’s appeal in that case.
Jefferson was sentenced to 13 years in prison. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit upheld 10 of the 11 corruption counts on which he was convicted. The Supreme Court declined to hear the Louisiana Democrat’s 2012 appeal.